What’s the Best Way to Convince a Climate Change Denier?

17:39 minutes

In the summer of 2015, NOAA scientists published a paper that ran counter to one narrative on global warming: While some data seemed to show the rate of warming had slowed or paused after 1998 and into the beginning of the 21st century, they wrote, an update to NOAA’s influential temperature data set confirmed that warming had actually continued at a consistent pace during that time. The paper, which challenged the positions of climate skeptics, was politically controversial, and led to a Congressional subpoena for the team from Republican Lamar Smith. Now, new research in Science Advances echoes what NOAA asserted two years ago.

Will this new data be persuasive, or will it lead to more controversy? Are there other ways to communicate with those who doubt or outright dismiss the possibility or urgency of climate change?

Ohio State University decision sciences expert Ellen Peters, Ed Maibach at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, and University of St. Thomas thermal science professor John Abraham discuss effective strategies for talking persuasively about climate change. Their conclusion? Data isn’t always the answer.

Segment Guests

Ellen Peters

Ellen Peters is director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative and a professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Edward Maibach

Ed Maibach is a professor of Communications and the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

John Abraham

John Abraham is a professor of Thermal Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When you joined your relatives for the holidays, between gulps of eggnog and champagne, did some of your conversation get, shall I say, a bit overheated? And no, I’m not talking about politics here– or actually, on second thought, maybe I am.

I’m talking about the frank exchange of views you had with folks who did not believe in global warming. Despite your best efforts to change their minds with the facts, they had their own set of facts. Some of our listeners can vouch.

Nicole on Facebook says she banged her head against the wall. Maria on Twitter had to change the subject the last time they talked about climate change with a doubter. And remember two years ago when the NOA scientists revised their climate data, and concluded that, despite some assertions, there was no pause in global warming in the early part of the century?

If you recall, it was a controversial paper in some quarters. Climate change doubters, like Senator and then-presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, have been using the pause as an argument against climate change science writ large. And Republican House Science committee chair, Lamar Smith, subpoenaed the researchers, wanting their emails.

Now though, new research in the journal, Science Advances, says NOA was right. An independent group concludes that temperatures rose steadily during the years, when other data sets perceived a slowdown. So will this new data change anyone’s mind? And in a political climate that seems dominated by doubters, President-elect Trump has suggested ending NASA’s climate science and pulling out of the Paris Agreement, for starters.

How do science advocates persuade skeptics to take action? That’s what we’re going to be talking about. If you’d like to join our conversation, our number is 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

Let me introduce my guests. Dr. Edward Maibach is professor of communications and Director of the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Welcome to Science Friday.

DR. EDWARD MAIBACH: Thanks, Ira. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Dr. Ellen Peters is a psychology professor and Director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative. That’s at Ohio State University in Columbus. Welcome Dr. Peters.


IRA FLATOW: Dr. John Abraham is a professor of thermal science at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Welcome back to Science Friday. Nice to have you.

DR. JOHN ABRAHAM: Pleasure to be on.

IRA FLATOW: But first, if they allow, we want to know from you, have you ever had a successful conversation with a global warming skeptic? We want to know about it. Our number is 844-724-8255. Or you can tweet us @scifri.

Let me ask you, Dr. Abraham. Why does it matter that we have another paper saying there was no pause in global warming? Are we going to convince anybody?

DR. JOHN ABRAHAM: Well, the short answer to that is no. Within the scientific community, we’ve known that there was never a pause in global warming. There isn’t a pause. There wasn’t a pause. The Earth continues to warm.

But what we are sensitive to issues that are brought up in the media. And there was this issue brought up about whose temperature records were best? I mean, measuring the Earth’s temperature is hard.

Where do you measure it? Do you measure in the atmosphere, or the oceans? How high up in the atmosphere? How deep in the oceans? What kind of instruments do you use? How many measurements do you need to make, and so forth?

And there are different groups around the world that make different choices about how they assemble that data. It turns out that NOA, the US group, made some choices which were different from another group out of the United Kingdom. And this independent group, that just published their paper this week, was a test. They tested both sets of data. And they found that NOA’s was right.

What this means is the Earth is warming faster than people had thought. It means that it will warm up more in the future than we feared. So it’s an interesting academic exercise. But I don’t think it’s going to change skeptics’ minds. People in the scientific community knew that global warming had not stopped.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dr. Peters, if science isn’t helping people make up their minds, what can help people make up their minds?

DR. ELLEN PETERS: So we always have to start with the science. The data that Dr. Abraham talked about is very important. And we have to have that as a basis. In addition to that, though, we have to recognize how the human mind works.

We’re ideally objective when we think and decide. But that isn’t what we actually do. Instead, we end up being influenced by a huge number of different mental shortcuts that we take. And irrelevant cues can influence us in ways that are outside of our awareness.

But in particular, in this kind of a situation, we tend to seek out, interpret, and weigh information according to what we wanted to believe ahead of time. And so that’s sort of a bit of the psychology that’s underlying, I think, at least what Dr. Abraham is suggesting, that people may end up not changing their minds because of this new bit of data. What we can do is we can, for ourselves, if nobody else, we can really listen to the other side.

We can try to walk in their own shoes. We can ask them to try to walk in our shoes too. And it’s that trying to understand the other side and having them try to understand your views that, at some point, hopefully, will help us to get together better, not just on the knowledge– which again, is key– but also on the values and preferences that differ across people.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of a lot of different people, Ed Maibach, one of your projects is a survey that describes six Americas of global warming, the six different attitudes people might have about the issue. Can you describe who these six Americas are?

DR. EDWARD MAIBACH: Yes, sure. So it goes without saying there’s no such thing as the general public. People are different. In our work, we’ve set out to try to understand those differences. And we found that there are essentially six different kinds of Americans with regard to their views about global warming, and with regard to what they would like to see their community, and their state, and their nation, our nation, do about it.

We call the one group people who are most concerned about global warming. We call them the alarmed. They’re almost 2 out of 10 Americans currently. On the other end of the continuum of the six groups, we have a group that we call the dismissive. There are currently about 1 out of 10 Americans. And that’s actually really important for this conversation. It’s really only about 1 out of 10 of us who are not convinced by the science of climate change.

But then in the middle, there’s about 7 out of 10 Americans who hold views that are largely appropriate, largely understanding, that climate change is happening, but they’re not entirely sure. And so they have relatively tepid attitudes towards climate change. So it isn’t so much the case that a lot of Americans need to be convinced that climate change is real.

But it is very much the case that most Americans see climate change as a very distant problem, distant in time. They see it as a future problem, not today’s problem. Distant in space, they see it as somewhere else’s problem, not our problem. And finally, distant in species. They see it as a plants, penguins, and polar bears problem, not a people problem.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there a point– I’ll ask all three of you. Let me direct this first at Dr. Peters. Is there a point where it just doesn’t pay? You get into a discussion, and just doesn’t pay to continue it anymore? It gets to be frustrating for both sides.

DR. ELLEN PETERS: I mean, I think if you’re at the Thanksgiving table and you’d actually like to enjoy your family, then that’s the time, possibly, to turn away from that conversation. On the other hand, for us to make ground roads– especially into these seven of 10 people that Dr. Maibach is talking about– for us to make inroads into those people, we have to talk about these things. We have to talk about why we differ in these beliefs, and how we can come together on maybe part of it, if not all of it.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You did research in 2012 that concluded that science literacy and math ability aren’t correlated with considering climate change problem, they’re actually correlated with more polarization. Can you expand on that?

DR. ELLEN PETERS: Yeah, so what we did back in 2012 is we looked at how much risk people perceive from climate change. And the experts tend to believe that people use too many heuristics, they’re not numerate enough, they’re not scientifically literate enough to understand the data. And that’s why we end up relying on these political divisions in order to kind of figure out how much risk there is out there.

What we did in this study is we thought about the idea that maybe what really happens– as this, in fact, is what the data say– maybe what really happens is that those people who are the most scientifically literate and the most numerate, the best with numbers, they’re the ones who are actually dividing, in terms of their political affiliations, the most. So what ends up happening, ultimately, is that people who are more liberal, they tend to perceive more risk about climate change. People who are more conservative, they tend to perceive less risk.

But that is especially true for people who are particularly good at science and at math. And we think it’s because there are different goals that we have when it comes to perceiving risks in the world around us. One is a goal that has to do with societal welfare and what’s best for everybody. And the other is what’s good for me, for myself, in the moment. And part of what’s good for me and myself at the moment is maintaining my tribe, maintaining being part of my tribe.

And let’s say I’m a conservative person, if I espouse a belief that’s different from all of my conservative tribe, in a sense, I get kicked out. And that that’s against my best interests. People who are better at math and science may also be better at recognizing those goals and choosing for themselves.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re having an internal sort of conflict between their factual side and their political or possibly religious side?

DR. ELLEN PETERS: Yeah, in essence, exactly. And they’re choosing the other side.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, interesting. Dr. Abraham, I understand that you interact with the public, you teach, you train scientists, is there any strategy? If you throw a lot of data at people, that doesn’t work, does it?

DR. JOHN ABRAHAM: No, it doesn’t. My saying is, you can’t bomb people with graphs and get them to understand your point of view. But there are tricks to handling conversations, whether they’re at the Christmas or Thanksgiving table, or whether they’re in a professional setting.

And these aren’t tricks in a negative sense. These are just strategies or styles. One strategy is to approach the problem and connect it to their lives. So for example, I never talk about polar bears. And I never talk about penguins.

But I will talk about wildfires in Tennessee that are affecting Americans’ lives this winter. I will talk about the drought in California, which is the worst in 1,200 years. I’ll talk about the changes to habitat for hunters and fisherpersons. I mean, the impacts on farmers, these are people whose lives are being affected by climate change. And when you can bring the impacts to their lives, it’s a much more compelling case to be made.

And I think that that’s the key. And the other key, the second key is, approach the problem from a lens that is trusted by your audience. So, look, I’m a white, middle-aged professor in Northern United States. And there’s a lot of people who will just say, well, that’s that ivory tower guy talking about how he wants to influence my life.

But when I talk about why the Department of Defense is focused on climate change, or why faith communities are focused, or why conservation groups are focused on climate change, why farmers should be focused on climate change, people that speak the same language or are in the same– as Ellen Peters talked about– the same tribe, then it carries much more weight and import. So there are these strategies. you don’t sacrifice the science, but you approach it in a way that’s more accessible to the person you’re talking to.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s see if we can take a call here. And Eric from Elgin, Illinois. Hi, there.

ERIC: Hey, everybody.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

ERIC: To piggyback on what was just mentioned, the most persuasive arguments I’ve made over the holidays was to say that the advances in alternative energy make sense as far as dollars. People connect with money and saving it. And if we attract business to that, you don’t even have to touch the issue, as far as whether or not the world is warming.

Interesting Interesting, interesting point. Let me remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I think a really good example of that– and I’ll ask my guest. Thanks for calling– is Iowa. Iowa, you wouldn’t say it’s a liberal state, but it is making so much money installing wind power, one of the top wind power states in the union.

DR. JOHN ABRAHAM: Ira, you’re right– this is John Abraham– and Texas as well. I think Texas produces more wind power than any other state. The fact of the matter is solar in wind production costs have dropped incredibly over the past three decades. And they’re still dropping. And they’re now almost on par– or in wind’s case, on par– with coal.

So if we can have energy that is clean at the same price as the dirty energy, well, it’s just a no-brainer. Throw the climate change and the polar bears out the window. You just make the decision based on economics. And I think Eric, the caller, is exactly right. That’s how this whole issue is going to be tackled in the future, based on economics.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you don’t talk about whether it’s real or not, or you believe in it or not, you just talk about some solutions that are making money for people.

DR. EDWARD MAIBACH: Americans are wildly enthusiastic about clean energy. Doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, virtually all Americans are excited by the inevitable transition away from dirty fossil fuels and towards clean energy. So, absolutely, talking about clean energy, talking about other solutions, is a wonderful way to avoid intractable disagreements.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if I can get one quick call in before we have to go. Let’s go to Amber in San Antonio. Hi, Amber.


IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

AMBER: Yeah, I was just going to say, my big argument that I used with my family was kind of spinning the morals that they put on me as a child against them, by saying, you know, you always told me that I take care of stuff and that I leave something better than what I was presented with. So if I’m presented with the Earth, then I need to leave it better than what you gave it to me as. And it’s my Earth, so I need to take care of it.

So throw out because we’re trying to save polar bears, let’s just take care of it because it’s the Earth. And if you want to throw in religion, you could also say because God created it. So when I presented it that way, all the sudden, there wasn’t much of an argument.

It didn’t matter if, those darn liberals are making those facts up. It was, it doesn’t matter. We take care of our Earth. End of discussion.

IRA FLATOW: All right, that’s interesting way. Ed Maibach, where do political factors fall here? We’ve had a lot of leaders on the Republican side who have talked about ending climate change initiatives. What’s the messaging strategy for changing the minds, for example, of a President-elect who says he wants to back out of the Paris Agreement? Anything there?

DR. EDWARD MAIBACH: Well, it’s really the $64,000 question right now– not just the President, but essentially the people that he is appointing to his administration, they are pretty much stacking up all in the climate denial side. Many members of Congress are climate deniers, or at least that is their public position.

So it sets them very much apart from the American people, almost all of whom understand that climate change is happening. So I don’t know. I’m not a political strategist. But I tend to think that it doesn’t help to put people’s back to the wall, because their instinct will be to want to fight their way out of the corner.

Conversely, I think we have a moment right now where well-intentioned constituents, whether they be ordinary citizens, or America’s doctors, or television weather-casters, or science teachers, where they essentially petition our new administration, and say, come on now. It’s time to put that campaign rhetoric aside. And let’s deal with the reality of the situation. Let’s deal with this extraordinary opportunity that we’ve just been talking about, in terms of the transition to clean energy.

IRA FLATOW: People ask a lot of times, where can I get information? So talking points, our website, sciencefriday.com/climate. We’ve got resources up there that’ll take you to different links. Sciencefriday.com/climate, when you’re looking to find ways to answer.

Dr. Edward Maibach, Dr. Ellen Peters, Dr. John Abraham, thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about climate change. We’ll get into other sorts of things with the new Congress. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

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